A Novel (From the Notes of a Young Man)
I’ve finally returned from my fortnight absence. Our party has already been in Roulettenburg for three days. I thought that they would be waiting for me God only knows how eagerly; however, I was mistaken. The general had a confident air about him, spoke to me condescendingly and sent me to see his sister. It was clear that they had borrowed money from somewhere. I even thought that the general was a bit ashamed to look at me. Marya Filippovna was extremely busy and hardly spoke to me; however, she took the money, counted it and listened to my whole report. Mezentsov, the little Frenchman and some Englishman were expected for dinner: as usual, as soon as there’s money, there’s a Moscow-style dinner party. Upon seeing me, Polina Alexandrovna asked me why I had been away so long, and without waiting for my reply, walked off somewhere. It goes without saying, she did this on purpose. However, we need to have a talk. A lot of things have built up.
I’ve been given a small room on the fourth floor of the hotel. They know here that I belong to the General’s suite, which one can see has managed, somehow, to make an impression. Everybody here thinks that the general is a very wealthy Russian grandee. Even before dinner he found time, along with other commissions, to give me two thousand-franc notes to be changed. I changed them in the hotel bureau. Now they’ll think we’re millionaires, for a whole week at the very least. I wanted to take Misha and Nadya out for a walk, but on the stairs I was summoned to the general; he had thought it fit to enquire where I was taking them. This man absolutely cannot look me straight in the eyes; he would like to, but every time I answer him with such an intent – that is, disrespectful – look that he becomes embarrassed, as it were. In a highly bombastic speech, in which he piled up phrase upon phrase until finally he became thoroughly muddled, I was given to understand that I should walk with the children somewhere in the park, as far away as possible from the casino. In the end, he became thoroughly angry and added sharply:
‘Otherwise, you might take them to the casino, to the roulette tables. You must excuse me,’ he added, ‘but I know that you are still rather frivolous and are capable, perhaps, of gambling. In any event, although I am not your mentor and do not wish to take on such a role, at the very least I have the right to desire that you, so to speak, do not compromise me . . .’
‘But I don’t even have any money,’ I answered calmly, ‘you need to have some money in order to lose it.’
‘You’ll have some immediately,’ the General answered, flushing a bit, he rooted around in his bureau, consulted his accounts book, and it turned out that he owed me approximately 120 roubles.
‘How shall we go about figuring the amount?’ he began, ‘it has to be converted to thalers. Here, take a hundred thalers, a round sum – the rest, of course, won’t go missing.’
I took the money in silence.
‘Please, don’t you be offended by my words, you’re so quick to take offence . . . If I made an observation, it was only, so to speak, to warn you, and I do, of course, have a certain right to do so . . .’
As the children and I were returning home before dinner, I met a whole cavalcade. Our party had gone to have a look at some ruins. Two splendid carriages, magnificent horses! Mlle Blanche in one carriage with Marya Filippovna and Polina; the little Frenchman, the Englishman and our general were on horseback. The passers-by stopped and stared; they made an impression, but it does not bode well for the general. I figure that with the 4,000 francs that I brought, plus whatever they evidently had managed to borrow, that they now had seven or eight thousand francs; that’s much too little for Mlle Blanche.
Mlle Blanche is also staying in our hotel, together with her mother; and our little Frenchman is somewhere here as well. The footmen call him ‘Monsieur le Comte’, and Mlle Blanche’s mother is called ‘Madame la Comtesse’; who knows, perhaps they really are comte et comtesse.
I just knew that Monsieur le Comte would ignore me when we gathered for dinner. The general, of course, would not even think of introducing us or even recommending me to him; and Monsieur le Comte has spent time in Russia and knows the insignificance of this thing called outchitel. He, however, knows me only too well. But I confess that I made my appearance at dinner uninvited; it seems the general forgot to make any arrangement; otherwise, he would certainly have sent me to dine at the table d’hôte. I came of my own accord, so the general looked at me with displeasure. Kind-hearted Marya Filippovna at once found me a seat; but it was my meeting with Mr Astley that came to my aid and willy-nilly I found myself a part of their party.
I first met this strange Englishman in Prussia, in a railway car, in which we were seated opposite each other, when I was travelling to meet our party; then I ran into him as I was entering France, and finally in Switzerland; two times in the course of this fortnight, and now I suddenly meet him here in Roulettenburg. Never in my life have I encountered a person who is shyer than he; he’s shy to the point of seeming stupid, and he realizes this himself, because he’s not at all stupid. He is very nice and gentle, however. I managed to get him to talk at our first meeting in Prussia. He said that he had spent the summer at North Cape and that he very much wanted to go to the fair in Nizhny Novgorod. I don’t know how he became acquainted with the general, but he seems to be boundlessly in love with Polina. When she entered, he flushed crimson. He was very glad that I sat next to him at the table and seems to consider me his bosom friend.
At the table the little Frenchman set a peculiar tone; he was offhand and pompous with everybody. But in Moscow, I recall, he would talk a lot of twaddle. He’d go on an awful lot about finance and Russian politics. The general would sometimes venture to contradict him, but modestly, only as much as was possible without doing real injury to his own self-importance.
I was in a strange mood; it goes without saying that even before the dinner was half over I had managed to ask myself my usual and unchanging question: Why was I hanging around with this general, and why hadn’t I left them long, long ago? From time to time I would steal a glance at Polina Alexandrovna; she didn’t notice me at all. It ended with me getting angry and making up my mind to be rude.
It all began with me suddenly, for no apparent reason, butting into their conversation loudly and without asking their leave. Most of all I wanted to pick a quarrel with the little Frenchman. I turned to the general and suddenly made the observation, rather loudly and distinctly, and I think, interrupting him as well, that it was almost utterly impossible for Russians to dine in hotels at table d’hôte this summer. The general directed a look of astonishment at me.
‘If you are a self-respecting man,’ I continued, ‘then you’ll certainly be inviting abuse and must endure the most extraordinary insults. In Paris and on the Rhine, even in Switzerland, there are so many wretched little Poles, and their little French sympathizers, at these tables d’hôte that it’s impossible to get a word in if you’re a mere Russian.’
I said this in French. The general looked at me in bewilderment, not knowing whether he should get angry or merely be astonished that I had so forgotten myself.
‘So somebody somewhere gave you a good lesson,’ said the little Frenchman, carelessly and scornfully.
‘In Paris I first fell out with a certain Pole,’ I replied, ‘then with a certain French officer, who was defending the Pole. Then later a group of Frenchmen came over to my side, when I told them that I wanted to spit in the monseigneur’s coffee.’
‘Spit?’ the general asked with pompous bewilderment, and even looked around. The little Frenchman examined me mistrustfully.
‘Just so, sir,’ I replied. ‘Since I was convinced for two whole days that it might be necessary to make a short trip to Rome in connection with our business, I went to the office of the Embassy of the Holy Father in Paris in order to get a visa for my passport. There I was met by a little abbé, a dried-up man of about fifty with a frosty expression on his face, who after hearing me out respectfully but extremely coldly, asked me to wait. Although I was in a hurry, I of course sat down to wait, took out my Opinion nationale and began to read the most terrible diatribe about Russia. Meanwhile, I heard somebody pass through the adjacent room to see the monseigneur; I saw my abbé bow to him. I repeated my previous request to him; he even more coldly asked me again to wait. A bit later somebody else came in, also a stranger on business – some Austrian – he was given a hearing and immediately escorted upstairs. Then I became very annoyed; I got up, walked over to the abbé and told him in no uncertain terms that since the monseigneur was receiving, then he could deal with me as well. Suddenly the abbé drew away from me in extraordinary surprise. He found it simply incomprehensible that a lowly Russian could presume to put himself on the same level as the monseigneur’s guests. As if delighted that he might have the opportunity to insult me, he looked me up and down and shouted in the most impudent tone: “Surely you cannot suppose that the monseigneur will put aside his coffee on your account?” Then I, too, began to shout, but even more loudly: “You should know that I would spit in your monseigneur’s coffee! If you don’t finish with my passport this very minute, I’ll go see him myself.”
‘ “What! When he has the cardinal with him!” the little abbé shouted, and moving away from me in horror, he rushed to the door and spread out his arms as if he were on the cross, assuming the attitude that he would rather die than let me pass.
‘Then I answered him that I was a heretic and barbarian, “que je suis hérétique et barbare”, and that I cared nothing for all these archbishops, cardinals, monseigneurs and so forth and so on. In a word, I assumed the attitude that I would not back down. The abbé looked at me with boundless malice, then snatched my passport and took it upstairs. A minute later the visa was ready. Here, gentlemen, would you like to see it?’ I took out the passport and showed the Roman visa.
‘You, however,’ the general began . . .
‘What saved you is that you declared yourself to be a barbarian and a heretic,’ observed the little Frenchman, grinning. ‘Cela n’était pas si bête.’
‘But must I really follow the example of our Russians? They sit here – not daring to utter a word and are likely ready to deny that they are Russian. At least in my hotel in Paris they began to treat me more attentively when I had told everybody about my fight with the abbé. The fat Polish pan, the person most hostile to me at the table d’hôte, retired into the background. The Frenchmen even bore with me, when I told them that two years ago I had seen a man whom a French chasseur had shot in 1812 simply because he wanted to unload his rifle. This man was then a ten-year-old child and his family had not managed to get out of Moscow.’
‘That cannot be,’ the little Frenchman flew into a rage, ‘a French soldier would not shoot a child!’
‘Nevertheless, that’s what happened,’ I answered. ‘A respectable retired captain told me, and I myself saw the scar on his cheek from the bullet.’
The Frenchman began talking a lot and speaking quickly. The general started to back him up, but I suggested that he read, for example, at least excerpts from the Notes of General Perovsky, who had been taken prisoner by the French in 1812. Finally, Marya Filippovna began talking about something else in order to cut the conversation short. The general was very unhappy with me, because the Frenchman and I had almost begun shouting at each other. But Mr Astley seemed to enjoy my argument with the Frenchman; as he was getting up from the table, he invited me to drink a glass of wine with him. In the evening, I duly succeeded in talking with Polina Alexandrovna for a quarter of an hour. Our conversation took place while we were out for a stroll. Everybody had gone to the park by the casino. Polina sat down on a bench across from the fountain, and let Nadenka go play with some children not far away. I also let Misha go play by the fountain, and we were finally alone.
We began, of course, with business first of all. Polina simply became angry when all I had to give her was 700 gulden. She was certain that I would bring her back from Paris at least 2,000 gulden, if not more, after pawning her diamonds.
‘I must have money, no matter what,’ she said, ‘I must get it; otherwise, I’m simply lost.’
I began to question her about what had happened in my absence.
‘Nothing except that we received two pieces of news from Petersburg: first, that Grandmother was very poorly, and two days later that apparently she had died. This news was from Timofey Petrovich,’ Polina added, ‘and he’s a very reliable man. We’re waiting for final confirmation.’
‘And so, everybody here is in a state of anticipation?’ I asked.
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